Behind the Borders of the Modern Middle East

Born in Tehran, Firoozeh Kashani-Sabet, the Robert I. Williams Term Professor of History in the School of Arts and Sciences, spent the first part of her life in Iran during the reign of the shah, and was an eyewitness as events unfolded during the 1979 Iranian Revolution that removed the shah from power and gave rise to the Ayatollah Khomeini.

She stayed in Iran through the start of the Iran-Iraq War, then lived in France for a year before moving to the United States.


Firoozeh Kashani-Sabet completed her undergraduate studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, majoring in international studies and French literature, and her master’s and Ph.D. coursework in history at Yale. She joined the Penn community in 1999, and has served as director of the University’s Middle East Center since 2006.

Her first book, “Frontier Fictions: Shaping the Iranian Nation, 1804-1946,” was published in 1999.

In spite of the current instability in the region, Kashani-Sabet says the Middle East is “a beautiful place.”

“I think that when you listen to the news, it’s hard not to be depressed about the Middle East, and I can certainly understand why,” she says. “But there’s a part of me that always remains hopeful because the region itself embraces so many different cultures, religions, languages, peoples, and history. I believe that at the end of the day, these inspiring roots will be able to overcome the current political morass in which the region finds itself.”

Kashani-Sabet says after World War I, France and Great Britain were somewhat justified in creating modern countries in the Middle East. The actual boundary lines the European powers designed, however, were problematic.

“Maybe the configuration shouldn’t have been exactly what it turned out to be, and that’s why we’re seeing so many repercussions of it from an ethnic perspective and a religious or sectarian perspective,” Kashani-Sabet says. “Not a lot of thought went into what the consequences were going to be for the people actually living on the ground because they got very little input from the people on the ground, from the indigenous people.”

Click here to read an extended interview with Kashani-Sabet.


Text by Greg Johnson

Video by Kurtis Sensenig